Penn State Football

Penn State football: Nittany Lions’ defensive linemen playing relatively mistake-free heading into showdown with nation’s top rusher

Penn State defensive end Deion Barnes, top, and the Nittany Lion defensive front will be tested on Saturday when they will try to corral Indiana running back Tevin Coleman.
Penn State defensive end Deion Barnes, top, and the Nittany Lion defensive front will be tested on Saturday when they will try to corral Indiana running back Tevin Coleman. CDT file photo

Austin Johnson started to burst through the Maryland offensive line but the ballcarrier was already gone, sprinting out the backside away from heavy Penn State pursuit.

Terrapins quarterback C.J. Brown had pitched the ball to Brandon Ross who avoided a blitzing linebacker and sidestepped a lunging defensive back, looking to pick up big yards around Penn State’s left flank.

Johnson would have none of it. The 312-pounder kept his legs churning and covered nearly 70 feet in less than four seconds from the far hash mark to the sideline where he dropped Ross — a player more than 100 pounds lighter — for a one-yard loss.

Ironically, Johnson was not credited for the tackle as Maryland was called for an illegal block away from the play. It didn’t keep Penn State coach James Franklin from showing the sequence to his team as a prime example of hustle and determination earlier this week, however.

“Not only was his technique excellent, but his effort (was too),” Franklin said. “He ran down the sideline and made a great play. It’s impressive to watch a guy that big play like that.”

Anthony Zettel has had the best vantage point to watch Johnson shred opposing interior linemen each week.

“Just the ability for him to move his body as big as he is is very impressive,” Zettel said. “Works hard, great hands, hips, everything, so just playing next to him makes me better and makes the whole defense better.”

A redshirt sophomore in his first season as an every-week starter, Johnson is sixth on the team with 27 tackles. But perhaps his biggest contributions have come when he’s forced running backs to the outside where Deion Barnes and C.J. Olaniyan have gobbled them up or when he’s occupied more than one interior lineman, freeing up Zettel and allowing Mike Hull and the rest of Penn State’s linebackers to fill holes and plug running lanes.

As a result, Hull’s racked up 92 tackles and Penn State’s rushing defense is ranked No. 1 in the nation heading into Saturday’s game against Indiana, a team that’s averaging 275 rushing yards per game. Most of them have come from junior Tevin Coleman who leads the nation in rushing with 163 yards per game.

“He kind of gets skinny through the holes,” Johnson said. “He finds the hole very quickly and he’s very good at it so we have to be very good with our technique and be consistent.”

So far, they have been. And Johnson, alongside Zettel, has been the most crucial cog for a defense Bob Shoop was determined to build up the middle and from the inside out.

Barnes, who was the Big Ten’s Freshman of the Year two seasons ago, has enjoyed a renaissance year and leads the team with six sacks. Zettel is having a monster season and leads the team with nine tackles for loss and has knocked down six passes at the line of scrimmage.

Johnson didn’t hesitate when asked what the source of Penn State’s defensive line success has been this season.

“Coach Shoop is a genius,” he said.

But there’s more to it than that.

Nevermind the fact that Penn State’s starting front four have been able to take multiple breathers each game. As a second line of defenders has been pretty effective. Backup defensive linemen Carl Nassib, Tarow Barney, Parker Cothren and Brad Bars have been trusted to perform in multiple situations including fourth quarter series.

But while the second foursome has kept the starters relatively fresh, it’s rare to see a Penn State defensive lineman overpursue or get sucked out of position on any play.

Evidence of that? Johnson’s hustle play against Maryland.

Johnson — or a lesser player — could’ve easily been fooled by Brown’s deceptive stutter-step toward the line of scrimmage before he pitched the ball out to Ross. Had he committed to bringing down the quarterback, Johnson would’ve been trapped inside, likely unable to get an angle on Ross who sprinted toward the edge. Instead, Johnson kept his eyes on the football and remained squared up the whole time.

“We execute every play and we’re disciplined as a defense and that’s why everything works out for us,” Johnson said.

WEDNESDAY PRACTICE NOTES: Senior guard Miles Dieffenbach (knee) stayed after Wednesday’s practice to drill with a handful of defensive linemen. ... Franklin was non-committal as to whether Penn State would get Dieffenbach, who tore his left anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in March, back on Saturday. ... Junior left tackle Donovan Smith (head) was not at practice for a second straight session open to reporters. He has not played since suffering concussion symptoms against Ohio State. Franklin said Smith’s return would be up to team doctors.